Materiality and Corporeality: The Body in Popular Fiction and Visual Culture

“Contemplating the Male Body: From Aesthetics to Sexual Pleasure in Homosexual Literature”. Materiality and Corporeality: The Body in Popular Fiction and Visual Culture. University of Portsmouth, Portsmouth, 6 June 2013.

In this paper I analyse the representations of male bodies in André Gide’s The Immoralist (1902), Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1912) and D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love (1920), with a particular focus on the perception with which the perceiving subject beholds the body. The male body is often turned into a voyeuristic spectacle when it is described in elaborate detail and perceived by an attentive subject whose gaze enjoys the contemplation of the object-body. On the one hand, the bodies that are objectified in that manner become objects of aesthetic contemplation. On the other hand, however, they also become potential sources for sexual pleasure. This article investigates the ways in which perceptions of male bodies are aestheticized and/or eroticised in these texts.

From the Aesthetic to the Sexual Gaze (IV)

2007BM5740_michelangelo_david_plaster_castThe ImmoralistDeath in Venice and Women in Love all share a strong presence of the visual field, which places them at the birth of a new culture in the first part of the twentieth century: the culture of vision. Detailed descriptions, especially of the human body, anticipate what will be central in the new seventh art. The pleasure of looking gains prominence as it becomes part of a new popular visual art that is much more culturally extended than painting ever was. But it is not so much in the fact of seeing where most of the pleasure is felt as it is in the object presented to the gaze: the human figure. Laura Mulvey, in her analysis of cinema, argues:

‘The cinema satisfies a primordial wish for pleasurable looking […] the conventions of mainstream film focus attention on the human form. Scale, space, stories are all anthropomorphic. Here, curiosity and the wish to look intermingle with a fascination with likeness and recognition: the human face, the human body, the relationship between the human form and its surroundings, the visible presence of the person in the world’. (‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ 4)

However, cinema was born from a new technological context that led to a new conception of art and the human being. Visual pleasure is not free of a massive superficial valorisation of aesthetics, which reduces art, and with it the human body, to mere exhibitionism. Walter Benjamin argues, in ‘The Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, that modern art has replaced the cultural value of art with exhibitionism; therefore, the work of art has no meaning in itself, but rather acquires significance insofar as it acquires a function, in this case, the function of being exhibited: “[through] the absolute emphasis on its exhibition value the work of art becomes a creation with entirely new functions, among which the one we are conscious of, the artistic function, later may be recognized as incidental” (619-20). If then, as Mulvey argues, the human body has become a source of artistic pleasure in the current epoch, it is also not free from becoming a mere instrument, and that is the danger Benjamin refers to when he says that the human figure has become the centre of a cult, since “its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order” (634).

The aesthetic value of the human being calls for a rebirth of the artistic sense in contemporary society beyond the significance of technology. The three texts here analysed express a necessary sensibility towards the human figure’s ability to arouse wonder in the reader. The gaze can only be surprised by discovering the unique and by avoiding endless mechanical reproduction. The historical moment when these novels were written is not unimportant, since they give testimony to both aesthetic and human value, reminding, as Plato’s Prophetess does, that “such a life as this, my dear Socrates, ” exclaimed the stranger Prophetess, “spent in the contemplation of the beautiful, is the life for men to live […]” (The Banquet 103).

From the Aesthetic to the Erotic Gaze (III)

tumblr_luetpht2nO1qjbn98o1_500The relationship between Robert Birkin and Gerald Crich in Women in Love introduces the importance of the gaze in this analysis.[1] All three novels have sight as the central sense involved in contemplation. Both aesthetic and sexual contemplation depend primarily on the gaze of the beholder, who gives a particular meaning to his object. In Women in Love, the beholder of the male body in the scenes here analysed is not always the same, but rather alternates between the narrator and Gerald. In the chapter “Fetichist”, Gerald’s is the most prominent gaze which rests upon the male bodies:

‘Gerald looked at him, and with a slight revulsion saw the human animal, golden skinned and bare, somehow humiliating. Halliday was different. He had a rather heavy, slack, broken beauty, white and firm […] And Gerald realised how Halliday’s eyes were beautiful too, so blue and warm and confused, broken also in their expression. The fireglow fell on his heavy rather bowed shoulders, he sat slackly crouched on the fender, his face was uplifted, weak, perhaps slightly disintegrate, and yet with a moving beauty of its own.’   (Women in Love 64)

In this same episode there are other similar descriptions, especially from Gerald’s perspective, which emphasise the presence of a beautiful male body through the use of colour adjectives that produce powerful aesthetic contrasts: “golden coloured body with black hair” (65), “Birkin, white and strangely ghostly, went over to the carved figure of the negro woman in labour” (65), “the Russian golden and like a water-plant” (65). The most powerful contrast is achieved through opposing the white male bodies to the black female statue, and it is by means of this pictorial scene that an artistic gaze is provoked in the reader, who is the one who can properly behold the totality of the depiction. This gaze, however, is constructed through Gerald’s perspective, the one who is more powerfully looking at the different parts of the scenario. He is also the one who realizes about the African statue, which later makes the colour contrasts clearer:

‘Gerald looked round the room […] there were several negro statues, wood carvings from West Africa, strange and disturbing, the carved negroes looked almost like a foetus of a human being. One was a woman sitting naked in a strange posture, and looking tortured, her abdomen stuck out […] the strange, transfixed, rudimentary face of the woman again reminded Gerald of a foetus, it was also rather wonderful, conveying the suggestion of the extreme of physical sensation, beyond the limits of mental consciousness’. (61)

Unlike The Immoralist and Death in VeniceWomen in Love powerfully channels the gaze of the reader through the characters. In the passages cited above, Gerald’s sight is more an instrument for presenting an aesthetic disposition to the reader’s gaze than an aim in itself; in other words, the aesthetic pleasure is addressed to the reader, who can become wholly conscious of the scene as a whole, rather than to Gerald, who only perceives parts of it. However, both Michel and Aschenbach fully enjoy the visions of Bachir and Tadzio respectively, while the reader is more involved with Michel’s and Aschenbach’s perceptions and not with their objects of beauty. These objects are mediated by the sight and emotions of their beholder, and it is precisely this mediation that is left to the reader, who has no direct access to the object, to enjoy.

 In Women in Love, the sexualized gaze appears through a different but still interesting mechanism. If in the previous analysed passage of this novel the beholder of the male bodies was properly the reader (through Gerald’s perspective), there is another scene which is presented to the reader through the narrator’s vision. This scene shows Gerald’s and Birkin’s naked bodies as they are involved in friendly wrestling. Since both characters are involved in the action, neither of them is able to describe the scene as a whole; therefore, a complete vision can only be achieved through the narrator’s gaze. If before Gerald found himself to be at a distance from Birkin, this distance is now overcome. Contemplation is now replaced by pure action, and is, as in Michel’s case, a fetishistic gaze on each other’s bodies. If the contact between the two bodies arouses any pleasure it can only be of a sexual kind. According to Carolyn M. Jones, the act of wrestling means a breakdown of older forms in Birkin’s and Gerald’s relationship and the establishing of new ones (69), which can also be represented through a new sexualised gaze. However, if between Gerald and Birkin the distance of the voyeuristic gaze is overcome, it still remains between the narrative voice, the reader, and the scene of the two bodies. The narrator and the reader behold a male spectacle, they are voyeurs of a scene described in sexual terms. But there is neither voyeurism nor exhibitionism amongst those enacting the scene:

‘So the two men began to struggle together. They were very dissimilar. Birkin was tall and narrow, his bones were very thin and fine. Gerald was much heavier and more plastic. His bones were strong and round, his limbs were rounded […] they became accustomed to each other, to each other’s rhythm, they got a kind of mutual physical understanding […] they seemed to drive their white flesh deeper and deeper against each other, as if they would break into a oneness’.   (Lawrence Women in Love 234)

This quote exemplifies the narrator’s perspective and the mutual gaze of the narrator and the reader on the scene, as well as the lack of awareness of the whole scenario on the part of the characters. The narration here fully invites the reader to take pleasure in the scene. Linda R. Williams, in her book Sex in the Head, argues that the male spectacle finds often no audience within Lawrence’s work itself (72), however she makes no reference to the non-fictional reality, the reader, who is truly the audience in such cases. In The Immoralist or Death in Venice, however, a fictive spectator also appears together with the male spectacle. It is notable that Williams ignores the reader when she considers the gaze in Women in Love. She claims the function of the female characters’ gaze is to introduce the male spectacle in the framework of a heterosexual relationship between the viewer and the object, and thus avoids a homosexual gaze between men (99). However, the two scenes analysed in this essay indicate the opposite. In the first case, Gerald is the one who sees the male bodies, and in the second case, the narrator is the first spectator; through them both, the reader, who can be considered as an abstract presence without a particular gender, becomes a spectator as well. Therefore, even if it can be argued that Lawrence experiments with a gender split, it does not explain the whole of his work.

[1] Important analyses about the function of the gaze in Women in Love include the studies by Linda R. Williams (1993) and Earl Ingersoll (1994).

From the Aesthetic to the Erotic Gaze (I)

Eastman Johnson (American painter, 1824-1906) Negro Boy 1860The following posts will analyse how the contemplation of a beautiful body arouses sexual pleasure within the field of either homophilia or homoeroticism.

In The Immoralist (1902), the healthy state of the bodies where Michel finds beauty has, among other episodes, autobiographical reminiscences. Gide suffered from tertiary syphilis and anaemia during his childhood, something to keep in mind when appreciating the important link between health and beauty in his novel.  Michel’s weak and sickly physical state is aesthetically contrasted with the robust and healthy bodies of African boys, as well as with the exotic setting surrounding him. Michel describes his experience of seeing the young Bachir as follows: “When he laughed, he showed his pure white teeth. He licked the cut blithely; his tongue was pink like a cat’s. Ah, how well he looked. That is what I fell in love with –his health. This small body was in beautiful health” (The Immoralist 26).

Michel is aware of the physical presence of Tunisian boys, who awaken a desire for life and health in him; after the scene quoted above, Michel declares “I had started to love life” (The Immoralist 26), and only then does he firmly decide to improve his state of health. Beauty as represented by a healthy body means for Michel a redemption that is both physical and spiritual. Chapter III is mainly dedicated to Michel’s body, as a means of demonstrating how important physical recuperation is for the rest of his being. The body is an expression of Michel’s interiority, as can be seen throughout the novel, via the respective changes that his body and soul suffer. There is a complete evolution from a disharmony between Michel’s body and inner desires to a harmony between them. His physical appearance changes during the act of discovering himself. There are several references to Michel’s perception of his own identity, starting at the very beginning of the novel, such as “knowing myself so little” (16), “I didn’t know who I was” (24), “was this finally the morning when I was to be born?” (34) “I had a strange moment of self-revelation” (38), “did I know myself?” (43), “from now on, he was the one I intended to discover: the authentic being […] I myself –had tried to suppress” (43), until almost the middle of the novel when Michel quotes “a new self! A new self!” (44). It has been the presence of aesthetically pleasing bodies which has lead Michel to a rebirth.

While Michel is coming to a realisation about his new and authentic self, he experiments “a strange moment of self-revelation” (Gide 38). In the presence of another Arab boy Michel questions himself for the first time about his fascination with young boys:

 ‘Moktir, the only one of my wife’s favourites who didn’t annoy me (perhaps because he was good-looking), was alone with me in my room. Until then I had liked him only moderately, but his dark, brilliant eyes intrigued me. I developed an inexplicable curiosity about him, and began to watch his movements carefully’.                                                                          (Gide 38)

From this point on, words related to the semantic field of the beautiful decrease in favour of terms more linked to that of sexuality, such as “good-looking” (38), “handsome” (61), “attracted” (67) or “passion” (115). In the scene quoted, Michel’s gaze is scrutinizing and consciously looking for satisfaction. It is clearly a “voyeuristic view”, as John Ellis points out: “the voyeuristic look is curious, inquiring, demanding to know” (47). Later on, Michel realises that Moktir was aware that he was looking at him. His colleague Ménalque tells Michel that Moktir “realized you were watching him in the mirror and he caught your eye in the reflection” (Gide The Immoralist 77). It is significant that Ménalque is one of the triggers for Michel’s becoming self-aware of his desire, since Ménalque can be interpreted as a parallel figure to that of Oscar Wilde in Gide’s own life. Indeed, the encounter between Gide and Wilde in North Africa was decisive for Gide’s decision to embrace homosexuality (Sheridan 76). Moktir responds to Michel’s gaze, and even if the novel gives no indication of his feelings at this moment, the fact that he is seen while stealing a pair scissors and does not change his behaviour suggests that he knows what kind of action is taking place. Moktir does not fear being accused by Michel, in fact, he exhibits his own body as he hides the scissors “inside his burnous” (Gide The Immoralist 77).  In the whole novel there is no other pleasure for Michel than these moments of voyeurism; he finds no pleasure in his sexual relations with his wife. This parallels Gide’s own experience, for he considered women to be spiritual-love companions with whom sexual pleasure was difficult to enjoy (Sheridan 62). Therefore, the act of looking at male bodies becomes the greatest source for sexual pleasure. There is in Gide’s life an earlier testimony to such a pleasure. In his autobiography, Gide writes how “the sight of Idrac’s Mercury […] threw me into a stupor of admiration, out of which Marie had the greatest difficulty in arousing me” (If it Die… 50).

The second part of the novel shows the settling of Michel’s new self, and this fact implies a definite change in his own gaze. Michel’s enjoyment of the male body becomes less contemplative and tends subtly towards action. The presence of a gorgeous boy does not startle his sight as before, and he is already familiar with the pleasure that is linked to this kind of vision. Now, Michel seems to seek something more than mere contemplation. Such an experience is made possible by Charles, the son of one of Michel’s workers. Michel describes Charles as “a handsome fellow, so blooming with health, so lissom and well-made” (Gide The Immoralist 61). Unlike with the Tunisian boys, Michel will have a close relationship with Charles, who will be helpful for Michel’s business, and in turn this situation will allow them to spent time together in different activities. This activity breaks the contemplation and introduces action into Michel’s appreciation of the male body; in other words, the voyeuristic view becomes a “fetishistic process”, which Ellis defines as “the abolition of looking itself: bridging the gulf that separates viewer and object” (Visible Fictions 47).

Baroque Gaze in Woolf’s Between the Acts

Theatre-MysteryIn 1940 Virginia Woolf finished Between the Acts, a novel close to The Waves and very clearly belonging to her last years in style and narration. Indeed, Woolf’s last novels are characterised by a strong presence of symbolical meaning and language, a very intuitive perception of the world, something which brings her narrative close to Ricoeur’s understanding of the text as a world to be deciphered by means of words and images. Very symbolical and metaphorical as well as very modernist, Between the Acts is a work within a work, more exactly, a play inside a novel.

The meaning of this novel is more apprehensive by intuition than by logical thought, and the interrelation between the play and the novel belongs, I dare to say, to a metaphysical realm. The whole book describes, or re-describes -using Ricoeur’s concept- the meaning of a single day where a play takes place. The play is a historical one, and it shows the  Elizabethan England, that is, the English Golden Age -calling to some world’s conception; and it is displayed between the wars, in 1939. What is put on stage is life in a fictional realm and in the real one, where the reader finds himself. While the novel’s characters are looking at the stage, the reader is looking at them and beholding the whole scene of looking as a theatre. The sense of scenario is strongly presented to the reader, and it implies a sense of volatility, illusion, in the very least, falsehood. Woolf killed herself a year after writing this novel, and it is very interesting to see how the sense of spectacle permeates the text. In A Sketch of the Past, an autobiographical text written by Woolf during the years 1939-40, she outlines the feeling of being in the world as a spectator, as an outsider. Between the Acts expresses this feeling metaphorically presenting life as a play and making of both, the characters and the reader, spectators; she is sharing her existential experience.

Fiction becomes here the only possible world to create a pre-experience of suicide, of despair. A whole day has become a pageant, and this day is linked to the world through the historical moment represented in the play. The idea of being on the stage so properly of the Baroque epoch comes into play in 1940, where death and futileness were present again in a sense of decadence. Shakespeare and Calderon de la Barca make this point central, life is a stage, however, the difference resides in the extension of the drama: in the Golden Age it was cosmological, in Modernism it is individual. It is Virginia Woolf who is properly experimenting her existential inconsistency, and her novel involves daily characters in a normal day. It is daily life what becomes nonsensical, the individual existence is affected by a non-real experience -maybe this same feeling led Walter Benjamin to write The Origin of German Tragic Drama in 1925. But baroque authors were concerned with a world vision theory, so to say, not with a personal experience of annihilation.

Still Something to do

Asian-Ballet-Watercolor-Painting-360x480thIn 1928 Virginia Woolf was concerned about women, money, and writing. Her essay A Room of One’s Own is an attempt to analyze the situation of female writers through the history of literature, and to figure out why they are far less in number than men. Even if for many the reasons concerning such situation could appear clear enough, there is one particular reflection in Woolf’s thoughts far from being solved, even thought of, eighty years later she put it into words.

Among the women writers Woolf cites Jane Austen is one of the most acclaimed by her. It is not because of being better than, for example, Charlotte Brönte, but because of the mode in which she wrote, that is, completely free from male conventions. In fact, Woolf is looking for something purely feminine, a mode of being in the world as a woman, not as a woman according to a patriarchal society, which is still where we still live. “The book has somehow to be adapted to the body”, that is an interesting statement, and it shows how Woolf was thinking about the essence of being woman or man and their corresponding artistic expressions. She was not so far from Barthes’ The Semiotic Challenge or The Pleasure of the Text considering the writing as adapted to the author’s mind or physical expression; at the very least, as a living entity. This self-expression is what Woolf found in Jane Austen and not in other female writers:

“They [Jane Austen and Emily Brontë] wrote as women write, not as men write. Of all the thousand women who wrote novels then, they alone entirely ignored the perpetual admonitions of the eternal pedagogue -write this, think that. They alone were deaf to the persistent voice, now grumbling, now shocked, now angry, now avuncular, that voice which cannot let women alone, but must be at them, like some too-conscientious governess, adjuring them”

It is exactly that which gives freedom to a woman to be a woman, instead of trying to put oneself within the male paradigms in order to be accepted or considered. The book should be adapted to the body, and it can be applied to other realms of the existence. That is what part of Feminism has lost: her own body. Instead of it, it has been the male body what has been defended every time some woman has tried to become a man. Part of the results from Feminism in the Twentieth Century have been to adapt the woman to a male society, instead of adapt society to the female body.

The Touch of Him


“The touch of him,” said Connie.

“That’s it, my lady, the touch of him! (…).”

H.D.Lawrence has usually been considered as an erotic writer, and as a misogynist, and I wonder what does it mean. Lawrence does not simply write erotic scenes, he is concerned with sexuality in an existential manner; and he is not simply a misogynist when he is able to display women’s concerns in their love relationships with such accuracy. Indeed, if Lawrence understood something it was the woman -strange enough for a man to sink into a female’s heart.

For Lawrence, sexuality conformed an important part of the human life and it meant something for him.  He does not literally describe physical contact, but he goes beyond it trying to get a deeper meaning usually through the metaphor. There is something fulfilled in the sexual encounters so needed for the person as other aspects of his or her reality. Lawrence’s characters use to experience their body as a very integrated part of their souls, and it communicates part of his being, especially, through sexuality. In Lawrence’s works, men and women should note a physical compatibility between them to find a complete meaning to their love relationships. In Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Connie’s husband paralysis becomes as well her own, and she submerges herself into a lifeless world. Connie’s rejection of her active sexuality implies that of her truly self and need for life. The interesting point in Lawrence’s analysis is that he relates the personal experience of his characters’ sexuality with their self. Mr Chatterley for example is a man of business and industry; he owns mines, machinery, he is hard and cold -like Gerald in Women in Love. However, Connie does not deal well with the technical world, but with the natural life. This difference between them two separates them, and it finds a corresponding expression in their respective sexuality. Lawrence uses to critique the negative effects of industry upon nature and the human being, and it is normal to find in his works negative associations with the industrial man. Mr Chatterley represents infertility with his paralysis and impotence; he is away from nature, from his and his wife’s biological being. But Connie lives suffocated under the industrial business of her husband, until she meets a worker of her husband’s properties.

Lady Chatterley’s lover represents the contact with nature and primitivism for both his low status and his life in the woods. Their meetings take place in the hut, which is actually a very primitive space compare to the Chatterley’s mansion. Nature is the surrounding of their sexual desire, and it means life and fecundity. Connie feels properly like a woman when she fulfils her sexuality, something very important for Lawrence who considered the heterosexual complementation as source of life and energy. The sexual descriptions have the function of outlining the male and female reactions to each other, and their mutual necessities only to be satiated with each other. Connie needs him to touch her to find her complete womanhood, and he needs her to kill his loneliness. That is why penetration is always described as an entrance into her; the references to the inside are important as they reach a spiritual meaning, a mutual completeness.

Our Body, Our Language

dancing,women,art,dance,painting,womans-59550cc39b7428ffade728ba4e533455_h_largeSince the second half of the nineteenth century is possible to see in the history of literature an increasing prominence of the human body and its importance. It was Freud who put into words the relation between our interiority and our body and clearly talked about an interpretation of the physical signs to know our inner problems. The body talks, indeed, as we are a human unit, and it is a pity to see how nowadays medicine is just concerned with the physiological. A lot of health problems have their origin somewhere deeper within us but the fashion today is to cut off what is superficially wrong and, of course, the problem usually comes again later on. Well, the main problem in our medical system is that humanities have absolutely no importance and we find doctors with no idea of what a human being is beyond his or her flesh. But this digression was not my intention.

Coming back to literature, I would say Zola is one of the most important authors concerned with the body reactions to our own actions. In fact, Thérèse Raquin and Laurent after killing Camille do not present spiritual regret but physical regret, to say so. It is a very interesting point how, even when a person could have lost all his or her feelings, the body remains and expresses through illness the consequences of an action. They do not ‘feel bad’ but they feel ill, terribly ill until the point of desiring death. That is what Zola does wonderfully, he experiments with the most physical part of the human being and this part talks as well.

In a more linguistic approach, it is excellent the work of Roland Barthes and even of Michel Foucault regarding the language of the body. Barthes, in The Semiotic Challenge finds a correlate between the body and the language and argues how illness belongs to the language of the body. Foucault in The Birth of the Clinic presents a similar approach regarding the sign found both in the body and the language. It is possible to read a human body as it is possible to read a text and until now the most wonderful example I can give of is Barthes’ The Pleasure of the Text. Barthes establishes a parallel between the textual and the human eroticism and seduction. Language and body are extremely related in this case but they are so indeed in a lot of situations.

Lawrence is another author dealing with the language of the body and between bodies. Most of his female characters feel their sexual needs as something which goes beyond the physical and expresses itself in the whole person, something similar happens to Thérèse Raquin. The awakening of the body has consequences all over the psyche and soul of the character and the process of attraction starts with a physical communication which usually is expression of something deeper. When the body is able to express the truly personality of the person harmony is likely to appear.

Memories of Mrs Dalloway

mrs-dallowayPeter Walsh comes back from India and decide to assist as well to Clarissa Dalloway’s party. After the popular ‘Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself’, the novel opens with a wandering for Westminster. Clarissa thinks and reminds different episodes of her life, especially those before marrying. When she comes back home at 11 o’clock she is surprised by the unexpected visit of her past lover, Peter Walsh. She knew of course he would go to her dinner party this very evening but she had not read his letter about his early visit. Of course Peter is introduced before his appearance through Clarissa’s thoughts; they were in fact in love with each other before Clarissa married Richard Dalloway, but they have not meet again since Peter leaving from England. After this short visit where Peter tells her to be in love with a very youth Indian, he starts his own wandering for London as Clarissa did before. Thirty years later he too reminds from his own perspective similar episodes of their youth and his feelings for Clarissa.

‘The compensation of growing old, Peter Walsh thought, coming out of Regent’s Park, and holding his hat in his hand, was simply this; that the passions remain strong as ever, but one has gained -at last!- the power which adds the supreme flavour to existence -the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it round, slowly, in the light. A terrible confession it was, but now, at the age of fifty-three, one scarcely needed people any more, Life itself, every moment of it, every drop of it, here, this instant, now, in the sun, in Regent’s Park, was enough. Too much, indeed. A whole lifetime was too short to bring out, now that one had acquired the power, the full flavour; to extract every ounce of pleasure, every shade of meaning; which both were so much more solid than they used to be, so much less personal. It was impossible that he should ever suffer again as Clarissa had made him suffer.’

The whole book takes place in a day; a day which is important for the memories and thoughts it brings back. Clarissa refused to marry Peter, she married a MP and since then they live in Westminster. Peter Walsh has a set of affairs to keep with him, none of them durable or fruitful. But there remains still a kind of Why; why did they do not marry? Peter thought ‘How they would change the world if she married him perhaps’. It is indeed this annoying ‘perhaps’ all the time around Peter’s head. But Clarissa is not a woman of Perhaps, she is a woman of Yes; she enjoys life terribly until the point of being vitalistic. Her answer to life and events is Yes. He could be happy with Peter as she is with Richard, but probably she could not stand a doubtful man as his life finally has shown so.

And there is the city, London, this wonderful city where Clarissa and Peter walk around. London has a meaning in this novel, a very subtle one, it is not a mere scenario. Clarissa is herself in part because of London, she loves it and her thoughts are born along her paths. London brings as well memories back and the act of reflection takes most of its part in the streets. London is meaningful, is the capital of the Empire, but it is also a capital of ideas, something of course very present in the Bloomsbury Group. And Peter lives in India but he comes back and finds Clarissa there, living in the core of the City and married to a MP, she belongs to the elite. It marks Peter as an outsider, he is an adventurer and it is important to note that he went to India after Clarissa refused him. There are political readings to their relationship as well.

Virginia Woolf is an excellent narrator; she achieves to present the characters’ heads and hearts with the same shadows as one himself does. A whole day introduces the  life of the main characters by showing just the necessary. There is nothing completely sure about themselves, about their longings or desires, just as they are not completely aware of them. But we know real people and we are able to engage with them in the most human sense. Woolf is a master of human heart and she shows and hides as the heart itself does in our lives.

‘Absorbing, mysterious, of infinite richness, this life’. Mrs Dalloway

“Ulysses”: An European Blasphemy

A Nude Boy on a Beach 1878 by John Singer Sargent 1856-1925 Joyce’s Ulysses (1914-1921) of course can be read and interpreted from many points of view; it can be seen detail by detail or globally; it can be analysed stylistically or in content, and so on, there are almost 1 000 pages to find some point of interest. My purpose here is to focus on a chapter -‘Nausicaa’-, especially on two scenes, and from there to propose a whole reading of the book.

In ‘Nausicaa’, Gredy meets Leopold on the beach and they have a sexual encounter. It takes place next to a Catholic church where a retreat is taking place. So, the two parallel scenes are a sexual intercourse out of marriage (have in mind it was written before the 20’s) and a spiritual retreat in a Church. Gredy wears blue clothes as well as the representation of the Virgin Mary in the Church. The structure in which it is presented clearly introduces a parallelism between these two women. To suggest that Gredy could be or is similar to the Virgin while she is “fornicating” is quite a provocative thought whose aim seems clearly to be an act of blasphemy, or to look for scandal.

The second scene, which I see as related to the one above, shows Leopold alone after the intercourse writing in the sand ‘AM.A’. Writing in the sand recalls a biblical scene, it is Christ who writes in the sand after helping the adulterous from the Pharisees. It should be noted that both men write in the sand after an adulterous act has take place; so Joyce seems to be presenting here another parallelism, the act of Leopold writing in the sand is purposively put on the novel. Moreover, Leopold writes ‘AM.A’, which can be read as ‘I am I’; that is one of the expressions Christ says to introduce himself to the apostles: ‘I am I’. If you take these two scenes, you have an identification between Gredy and the Virgin, and Leopold and Christ, in other words, you have a sexual act between the Virgin and Christ. It is blasphemy what Joyce was looking for.

Behind it, Classical mythology follows the same curse. The novel is called “Ulysses” and every chapter corresponds to a chapter of Homer’s “Ulysses”. Leopold is not just identified with Christ but also with Ulysses, and her wife Molly is identified with Penelope. Leopold and Molly present the vices which correspond to Ulysses’ and Penelope’s virtues.

Joyce is mocking the two great pillars of European tradition and he knows perfectly, due to his education of which there is no doubt, what is he doing. Homer’s “Ulysses”, moreover, was took as a Pagan example of Christianity during the Middle Ages, which makes the link even clearer. Joyce is contesting the whole Western tradition, I would say, going back even to the Old Testament as Leopold Bloom is Jewish (don’t forget that Christ is Jewish).

The whole novel is what I would call, not a religious blasphemy but more than that, an European one as Joyce destroys everything which has been proclaimed as the Western culture.

Time in European Modernism

clock-screen01 CFP MDRN conference 1: Time and Temporality in European Modernism and the Avant-Gardes (16-18 Sept. 2013)
Call for papers
Time and Temporality
in European Modernism and the Avant-Gardes (1900-1950)
16-18 September 2013 – KU Leuven, Belgium
This three-day conference aims to canvass the breadth and depth of the issues of time and temporality in European modernist writing and classic avant-garde literature.
It has often been argued that so-called “high” modernist and avant-garde writing were perhaps the first to investigate in detail the problems of time and temporality. As a result, reflection on both issues in (“new”) modernism and avant-garde studies abounds. To date, however, we lack a systematic understanding of the different forms and functions of time and temporality in the writing from the period. It is this lacuna the present conference aims to fill. We are particularly interested in (general as well as innovative case-based) considerations of modernist and avant-garde writing and practices that tackle one of the following questions:
  • How was time represented? What genres, techniques and means were deployed to evoke time?
  • In what ways was the literary representation of time influenced by (changes in) other media and art forms?
  • Which temporalities (bodily and natural time, mechanical and machine time, private and public time, etc.) were evoked and how did they interrelate?
  • How was the flow of time conceived (teleological, multilayered and -directional, cyclical, etc.) and what temporal regimes (for example, favoring the present, past or future; continuity and tradition or rupture and revolution) were at work in modernism, the avant-garde, and cognate phenomena like the so-called arrière-garde? What hitherto ignored temporal modes require further scrutiny?
  • What were the ramifications of modernist and avant-garde conceptions of time for the practice of reading, the history of the book (classics, pockets, …), and more generally for the social and cultural legitimation of literature?
  • What other (perhaps less well studied) discourses (physics, biology, engineering, philosophy, etc.) informed literary reflection on time and temporality and how were insights from these other discourses translated in literary practice?
  • How was time experienced and what were its implications for our understanding of the modern body, identity and subjectivity?
  • Were there noticeable variations in how time was dealt with in modernist and avant-garde writing in different parts of Europe (and beyond)? What, more generally, were the implications of the views of time for the understanding of space and place (in writing)?
  • Does the conception of time change in the course of the period 1900-1950, and, if so, what are the (social, literary, philosophical, …) conditions of emergence and consequences of these changes?
We welcome paper and panel proposals before 15 February 2013 on these and other questions crucial to any mapping of the literary timescape between 1900-1950. By analyzing in-depth how modernist and avant-garde writing reflected on time and change, we ultimately aim to explore the ramifications of these ideas for the literary historiography of the period.
Proposals are welcome from individuals, and from panels of three or four. We especially welcome panel proposals and prefer panels where members are drawn from different institutions, preferably across national boundaries.
Panel proposals should include the following information.
  1. Title of panel
  2. Name, address and email contact of Panel Chair
  3. A summary of the panel topic (300 words)
  4. A summary of each individual contribution (300 words)
  5. Name, address and email contact of  individual contributors
  6. Short biography of all contributors, incl. main publications and areas of expertise
Individual proposals should include the following information.
  1. Title of paper
  2. Name, address and email of contributor
  3. A summary of the contribution (300 words)
  4. Short biography of the contributor, incl. main publications and areas of expertise
Guided tours of the Husserl archive at KU Leuven will be offered to delegates upon request. A conference website is under construction. With proposals or any further questions at this stage

Europe in War

I wouldn’t recommend anyone to read Storm of Steel by Ernst Jünger who was not interested in a kind of “war report”. In fact, Jünger wrote his war diary during his four years in the World War I and he gave us a piece of faithful events without space for feelings or emotions. This lack of “humanity” has been the cause of several critics,which, like Walter Benjamin, accused Jünger of complicity with the idea of “cult of the war”. The mere fact of describing war events instead of showing a personal experience or an inner-reaction lead some part of the critics to see in Jünger’s narrative a pure “war for war’s sake”.

But before going on, let us see what’s written about war in female fictions. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway shows some male consequences after being in the World War I. Woolf, as in general all women writers of this period, focuses on the consequences of war on human relations. In fact, the general is unable to react to her wife’s demands with any kind of empathy, he’s completely out of question in his returning to London. The main problem is that he can’t express himself what is going in his inner-self. And that, I guess, is the point: the lack of expressivity of the emotions. Woolf’s general, like Jünger, don’t talk about anything which is not outside themselves. The general becomes mad, but his madness is a kind of frustration because of his past experience and it’s related to the breakdown between war what he feels and what he achieve to say. The reader of Woolf knows the female side of the war and feels the destruction of the relationships between women and men. The female suffering, in contrast with Jünger’s, is narrated by an over-expression.

Therefore, I’d say both narratives are coherent with each other even if being so different in style and form. They complement both views which I find a quite interesting topic to analyse.

Creative Femininity

Women and art create a new topic in Modernist Literature. Two good examples of it are Viriginia Woolf and Kate Chopin, both belonging to the first part of the 20th C. Together with the born of the New Woman appears the female artist as a key figure of the first feminism. Two works I’d like to turn to are To the Lighthouse (London, 1927) by Woolf and The Awakening (New Orleans, 1899) by Chopin. What these short novels share is the character of the female artist. In the first case, a not-married painter and, in the second case, a not-married musician and Edna, the main character who finds herself divided between marriage and painting. It’s interesting to see how there’s a dilemma between family duties and art which, actually, remains unresolved in both novels, especially in The Awakening where Edna incarnates the opposition. There’s no chance: either art or marriage. However, the interesting point is that of motherhood. It seems to be incarnated in both spheres; the creation of life could be substitute for that of art. In fact, these artists who in both novels remain single don’t live their condition as impoverish, while Edna experiments the two facts as contradictory. The problem of Edna, however, doesn’t consist just in the fact of being mother and artist, it’s also an expression of being trapped in a society of established roles. In such a case, we’re witnessing a difficult born: the woman of the 20th C. The tow facts aren’t in themselves contradictory but they were made so.